(photo credit: AP [file])
Lebanese authorities are holding in custody a prominent Shi'ite financier close to Hizbullah on suspicion of fraud after he invested hundreds of millions of dollars of other people's money before declaring bankruptcy, judicial officials said Wednesday.
The Kuwait-based newspaper Al-Watan reported that Hizbullah incurred some $683 million in losses as a result of Salah Ezzedine's activities.
Ezzedine gave himself up to authorities earlier this week after declaring himself bankrupt. The officials said he was then taken into custody and is being investigated for possible crimes including "the defrauding of large amounts of money."
He has not been formally charged yet.
The case has drawn comparisons in Lebanon with that of Bernard Madoff, the New York financier whose multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme wiped out thousands of investors and charities worldwide. Madoff was sentenced in June to 150 years in prison.
Ezzedine, a wealthy businessman from the town of Maaroub near the southern port city of Tyre, is a prominent financier particularly among Shi'ite circles in Lebanon. He is the owner of Dar Al-Hadi Publishing House, one of Lebanon's most prominent publishers of religious Shi'ite books that also prints books written by Hizbullah officials. He also owns the Al-Hadi television network for children.
Employees at the publishing house have refused to speak to reporters about the case.
An official with close links to Hizbullah confirmed to the Associated Press that Ezzedine "has extensive connections" with senior members of the group but could not say whether any senior members had business dealings with him. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The judicial officials said Ezzedine had major business interests, particularly in oil and iron industries in Eastern Europe, and suffered substantial losses when oil prices dropped starting in the middle of last year.
He tried to make up for his losses by taking money from Lebanese investors, promising them up to 40 percent interest on their deposits, which he could not repay, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Lebanese regulations.
Many Muslims consider interest paid by banks as un-Islamic, and therefore prefer to invest their money in businesses such as the ones run by Ezzedine.
Media reports said that among Ezzedine's victims are high-ranking members of Hizbullah, as well as Shi'ite investors from southern Lebanon and the Hizbullah stronghold south of Beirut.
Al-Mustaqbal, a Lebanese daily, said that among those who filed charges against Ezzedine was Hizbullah lawmaker Hussein Hajj Hassan. Repeated calls by The Associated Press to Hajj Hassan went unanswered Wednesday.
It was still not clear whether Ezzedine knowingly deceived investors.
Ezzedine is known for being involved in charity work. He headed an institution that organized pilgrimage trips to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.